As 2014 comes to a close, many believe the question of the legal, public status of gay marriage has been effectively settled—even before the Supreme Court finally pronounces on the matter. Fierce battles over religious freedom will continue, but already about 60 percent of all Americans now live in states where gay marriage is legal. In those states, and perhaps soon in the entire country, the public policy issue is largely settled at least for a generation or two.

But the change in public policy need not—and should not—settle the issue for the church. Instead all of us are being compelled to examine our beliefs and practices. This is a good thing. We deeply need a new approach to our neighbors and our churches’ own members, especially those who live with a same-sex attraction or orientation. To find this will require acknowledging the tragedy of our recent history, the continuity of Christian teaching, and the opportunity for a new kind of ministry.

The Tragedy

We must start with the tragedy that evangelical Christians who long to be biblical are widely perceived as hostile to gays. And it is largely our own fault. Many of us have actually been homophobic. Most of us tolerated gay bashers. Many of us were largely silent when bigots in the society battered or even killed gay people. Very often, we did not deal sensitively and lovingly with young people in our churches struggling with their sexual orientation. Instead of taking the lead in ministering to people with AIDS, some of our leaders even opposed government funding for research to discover medicine to help them.

At times, we even had the gall to blame gay people for the tragic collapse of marriage in our society, ignoring the obvious fact that the main problem by far is that many of the 95 percent of the people who are heterosexual do not keep their marriage vows. In fact, self-described evangelicals get divorced at higher rates than Catholics and Mainline Protestants! We have frequently failed to distinguish gay orientation from gay sexual activity—even though if any of us were judged by the persistent inclinations of our hearts, on sexual matters or otherwise, none of us could stand.

If the devil had designed a strategy to discredit the historic Christian position on sexuality, he could not have done much better than what the evangelical community has actually done in the last several decades.

Some believe that the track record of evangelicals is so bad that we should just remain silent on this issue. But that would mean abandoning our submission to what finally I believe is clear biblical teaching. It would mean forgetting the nearly unanimous teaching of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians over two millennia. And it would mean failing to listen to the vast majority of contemporary Christians (who now live in the global South).

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Biblical Consistency

The primary biblical case against homosexual practice is not the few texts that explicitly mention it. Rather, it is the fact that again and again the Bible affirms the goodness and beauty of sexual intercourse—and everywhere, without exception, the norm is sexual intercourse between a man and a woman committed to each other for life. Although this is familiar ground, and less and less contested even by those who advocate for a revision of Christian ethics, it is important to state just how strongly and consistently the Bible speaks to the goodness of marriage between a man and a woman, and equally consistently to the immorality of sexual acts (heterosexual and homosexual) that do not honor that bond.

In the creation account in Genesis, the “man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame” (Gen. 2:25). Their sexual attraction is good and beautiful. A whole book of the Bible—Song of Solomon—celebrates the sexual love of a man and woman. There are many, many Old Testament laws and proverbs that discuss the proper boundaries for sexual intercourse. In every case it must be between a man and a woman. Jesus celebrates marriage (John 2:1-11) and tightens the restrictions on divorce—again always in the context of a man and a woman. Paul affirms the goodness of sexual intercourse by urging a husband and wife to satisfy each others’ sexual desires (1 Corinthians 7:1-7).

This widespread biblical affirmation of the goodness of sexual intercourse when it occurs within the life-long commitment of a man and a woman provides the context for understanding the few biblical texts that explicitly mention same-sex intercourse (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10). Notably, none of these texts address motives or specific types of homosexual acts. Instead, they pronounce a sweeping condemnation of same-sex intercourse—whether female with female or male with male.

The truth is that many revisionist as well as all traditionalist scholars agree with the conclusion Richard Hays drew in his careful study, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in 1996: Paul (and Jesus, and the rest of the New Testament) “presupposes and reaffirms the … [Levitical] condemnation of homosexual acts.” Even scholars who defend homosexual practice by Christians today (like Dan O. Via, John McNeill, and Walter Wink) agree that wherever the Bible refers to homosexual practice, it condemns it as contrary to God’s will.

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To be sure, evangelicals today do not take everything taught in the New Testament as normative for today. Not many of us require women to cover their heads in church, for example, as Paul urged for the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11). Some Christians today advance a number of arguments to claim that (at least in the case of a monogamous, life-long commitment) same-sex intercourse should be morally acceptable in our churches:

  • A great deal of homosexual intercourse in Greco-Roman society was pederastic (a dominant older male with a passive younger male) and not infrequently involved slavery and rape;
  • The ancient Greco-Roman world knew nothing about a permanent life-long orientation or a long term male-male sexual partnership;
  • Many people in Paul’s time condemned homosexual intercourse because it required a male to play the role of a woman which in that time was considered a disgrace because males were superior to women;
  • Some Greco-Roman and Jewish writers condemned homosexual intercourse because it could not lead to procreation.

Obviously a mutually supportive life-long caring same-sex relationship is very different from the often temporary and oppressive relationships described above. And we do not believe that sexual intercourse must be for the purpose of procreation to be legitimate.

But two things are important about these arguments. First, Paul never argues that homosexual practice is wrong because it is pederastic or oppressive or wrong for a male to play the role of a woman. He simply says, in agreement with the unanimous Jewish tradition, that it is wrong. And second, there are in fact examples in ancient literature of long term (even life-long) homosexual partnerships. A number of ancient figures, including Plato’s Aristophanes in the Symposium, also talk about a life-long same-sex orientation.

Some argue for abandoning the historic Christian teaching on same-sex intercourse by pointing out that Christians today no longer accept what the Bible says about slavery and the inferiority of women. But in the case of both, there is a trajectory within the canonical Scriptures that pointed toward a very different viewpoint. What Paul asked the slave-master Philemon to do when his runaway slave Onesimus (now a Christian) returned was so radical that its wide implementation would—and eventually did—end slavery.

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On women, Jesus defied the male prejudices of his day and treated women as equals. Women were apostles (Rom 16:7) and prophets (Acts 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5) in the early church. When contemporary Christians totally reject slavery and affirm the full equality of women in church and society, they are extending a trajectory clearly begun in the biblical canon. In the case of same-sex intercourse, on the other hand, there is nothing in the biblical canon that even hints at such a change.

If the biblical teaching on sexual intercourse is decisive for the church today, then celibacy is the only option for those who are not in a heterosexual marriage. But many today argue that celibacy is impossible for most gays. Dan Via, a proponent of same-sex practice, argues that a homosexual orientation is the “unifying center of consciousness” for a gay person, and that God’s promise of “abundant life” must include “the specific actualization of whatever bodily-sexual orientation one has been given by creation.”

Such an argument would have astonished Jesus and Paul—both unmarried celibates who went out of their way to praise the celibate life. It is profoundly unbiblical to argue that one’s sexual orientation is the defining aspect of one’s identity (the “unifying center of consciousness” as Via insists). For Christians, our relationship to God and the new community of Christ’s church provide our fundamental identity, not our sexual orientation. That is not to claim that our identity as men and women with particular sexual orientations is irrelevant or unimportant for who we are. But that sexual orientation dare never be as important to us as our commitment to Christ and his call to live according to kingdom ethics.

Indeed, the historic position that sexual intercourse must be limited to married heterosexuals demands celibacy for vastly more people than just the relatively small number with a same-sex orientation. Widows and widowers, along with tens of millions of heterosexuals who long for marriage but cannot find a partner, are also called to celibacy.

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In addition to the unanimous biblical teaching, church history’s nearly unanimous condemnation of same-sex practice and the same teaching on the part of the churches that represent the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world (Catholics, Orthodox and churches in the global South) today ought to give us great pause before we bless same-sex intercourse.

A New Approach

However, simply repeating biblical truth (no matter how strong our exegesis or how sound our theology), listening to two millennia of church history, and dialoguing carefully with other Christians everywhere are not enough. We need a substantially new approach.

For starters, we must do whatever it takes to nurture a generation of Christian men and women who keep their marriage vows and model healthy family life.

Second, we need to find ways to love and listen to gay people, especially gay Christians, in a way that most of us have not done.

In addition to living faithful marriages and engaging in loving conversation, I believe evangelicals must take the lead in a cluster of additional vigorous activities related to gay people.

We ought to take the lead in condemning and combating verbal or physical abuse of gay people.

We need much better teaching on how evangelical parents should respond if children say they are gay. Christian families should never reject a child, throw her out of their home, or refuse to see him if a child announces that he is gay. One can and should disapprove of unbiblical behavior without refusing to love and cherish a child who engages in it. Christian families should be the most loving places for children—even when they disagree with and act contrary to what parents believe. Please, God, may we never hear another story of evangelical parents rejecting children who “come out of the closet.”

We ought to develop model programs so that our congregations are known as the best place in the world for gay and questioning youth (and adults) to seek God’s will in a context that embraces, loves, and listens rather than shames, denounces, and excludes. Surely, we can ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to teach and nurture biblical sexual practice without ignoring, marginalizing, and driving away from Christ those who struggle with biblical norms.

Our evangelical churches should be widely known as places where people with a gay orientation can be open about their orientation and feel truly welcomed and embraced. Of course, Christians who engage in unbiblical sexual practices (whether heterosexual or gay Christians) should be discipled (and disciplined) by the church and not allowed to be leaders or members in good standing if they persist in their sin. (The same should be said for those who engage in unbiblical practices of any kind, including greed and racism.) However, Christians who openly acknowledge a gay orientation but commit themselves to celibacy should be eligible for any role in the church that their spiritual gifts suggest.

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Imagine the impact if evangelical churches were widely known to be the best place in the world to find love, support, and full affirmation of gifts if one is an openly, unabashedly gay, celibate Christian.

I have no illusions that this approach will be easy. To live this way will be highly countercultural—contrasting both with our society at large and our own past history. Above all, it will require patience. Restoring our compromised witness on the biblical vision for marriage will be a matter of generations, not a few years. But if evangelicals can choose this countercultural, biblical way for several generations, we may regain our credibility to speak to the larger society. I hope and pray that the Lord of the church and the world will weave love, truth, and fidelity out of the tangled strands of tragedy, tradition, and failure we have inherited—and that the next generation will be wise and faithful leaders in that task.

Ronald J. Sider is the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. This article is adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book (co-authored with Ben Lowe): Always Reforming: An Intergenerational Dialogue on the Future of American Christianity (Baker, 2015).